Peter Wood's article originally appeared at Minding the Campus on March 16, 2016.
The anti-Semitic Boycott-Divest-Sanction (BDS) movement against Israel keeps reaching for—and finding—new depths of indecency. Among the deepest descenders into this abyss is Jasbir Puar, an associate professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers. Professor Puar recently garnered national attention for her address at Vassar, February 3, “Inhumanist Biopolitics: How Palestine Matters.” The talk has not been published, but some in the audience reported that Puar exhorted armed resistance to Israel; alleged that Israel “mined for organs” from dead Palestinians; and claimed that Israel systematically starves Palestinians as part of a medical experiment.
Readers can get a good idea of what Puar had to say from her November 2015 essay, published in Borderlands, “The ‘Right’ to Maim: Disablement and Inhumanist Biopolitics in Palestine.” The “right to maim,” to be clear, does not refer to the epidemic of stabbings of Israelis by Palestinians. It refers to an “implicit claim” by Israel “to the right to maim and debilitate Palestinian bodies and environments as a form of biopolitical control.”
The talk provoked heated responses, both to its substance and to the eight Vassar academic departments (including Jewish Studies) that sponsored it. But it also introduced a new angle in the current controversies over free expression on campus. The Vassar professor who introduced Puar asked the audience to “refrain from recording this evening’s proceedings, in the spirit of congeniality and mutual respect, though it is not against the law.” This request was also made as part of “the modest contract of trust essential to the exchange of ideas.”
As Cornell law professor William A. Jacobson observed, “Requesting non-recording of an open, public event on the pretext that non-recording is ‘essential to the exchange of ideas’ is odd.”
Puar’s talk leapt to national attention when Mark Yudof, former president of the University of California, and Ken Waltzer, an emeritus professor of history from Michigan State, published an op-ed, “Majoring in Anti-Semitism at Vassar,” in the Wall Street Journal. Puar objected that Yudof and Waltzer quoted her out of context. If they erred, it would be easy enough for Puar to set the record straight by releasing the transcript. Instead, she has protested her right to give public lectures that are off the record.
And in this she has gained support from 966 (so far) signatories around the country of a public letter asking Vassar’s president to defend Puar. The letter says that the criticism of Puar chills her speech and curbs her academic freedom. Puar has become the target of “heinous and misinformed attacks” because of her speech, as well as her “vilification” in “the ugly op-ed” in the Wall Street Journal.
These attacks, the signatories say, are all the more disgraceful in light of Puar’s scholarly achievement, including “her acclaimed book Terrorist Assemblages,” (subtitled Homonationalism in Queer Times) and other writings, “of the highest professional and scholarly rigor.” The scholars who have signed the letter include Judith Butler, Marilyn Hacker, Rashid Khalidi, Steven Salaita, Angela Davis, Rick Ayers (Bill’s brother) and some other familiar names. The list of signatories includes 137 who have appointments in English departments; 92 in either Women’s Studies or Feminist Studies; 55 in American Studies; 52 in Anthropology; nine in international studies; and seven in Environmental Studies. Twenty have faculty appointments at Rutgers, including twelve members of the Women’s and Gender Studies Department.
Thirty-five have some Vassar connection, though only eight teach there.
Three weeks after her talk at Vassar, Puar was scheduled to speak at Fordham on “the biopolitics of debility in Gaza.” The New York Daily News, alerted to curious aspects of Puar’s public presentations, nudged Fordham into noticing that Puar had imposed a “no recording” stipulation on her talk. But Fordham’s president, observing that a public lecture is a public lecture, said Fordham would not stop people from recording Puar’s words. Moreover, to avoid claims and counter-claims about her speech, Fordham itself would record and disseminate it. That was too much for Puar, who cancelled her talk.
Puar also threatened to sue anyone who records her talks or makes public any existing recordings of her talk from Vassar.
At nearly the same moment that the Fordham events were unfolding, the Chronicle of Higher Education published an essay, “The Free-Speech Fallacy,” by Puar supporter Jason Stanley, professor of philosophy at Yale. Stanley praises Puar as “an agenda-setting scholar” whose work has had “a level of impact few academics achieve in a lifetime.” But then he pivots to his real subject: his attack on the critics who say “left-wing social justice” is a threat to free speech. He dismisses Yudof’s and Waltzer’s defense of free speech as hypocritical, since their op-ed inflamed people against Puar. He jabs at Jonathan Haidt for framing the view that “academe suffers from a leftist ideological uniformity.” He sneers at the Heterodox Academy group, which, at Haidt’s lead, criticizes the left’s aversion to free speech.
Stanley trivializes their complaint: “I told my mother the other day that she shouldn’t tell me that I am overweight. Was I challenging her freedom of speech?” In Stanley’s view, people who complain about leftist repression of free speech are like students in a mathematics class complaining when their errors are corrected.
Returning to Puar, Stanley argues that those of us who criticize her smears against Israel are attempting to “silence oppressed and marginalized groups.” This is a head-spinning argument to the effect that support for free speech is really anti-free speech. It is anti-free speech because it impedes the voices of those who purport to speak for the oppressed. But silencing the defenders of Israel is acceptable because they speak for the privileged and powerful.
The core of the problem is that anti-Israel propagandists such as Puar and other “social justice advocates” want a double standard. They demand the right to speak, but they want none of the responsibility of having their views held up to ordinary standards of evidence and argument, or their words made accessible to audiences beyond their chosen venues.
To respect intellectual freedom, we must allow room for speakers such as Jasbir Puar and John Derbyshire, but we must also allow room for those who disagree to have their say, and those who dissent from such disagreement to have their say too. Nearly all colleges and universities are failing this test—though hats off to Fordham for refusing Puar’s demand to bottle-up her talk.
It is our deep misfortune to live at a time when the illiberal left, luxuriating in its “social justice” agenda has also embraced anti-Semitism and developed a new sophistry aimed at providing a free pass for the propagandists who claim to speak for the oppressed. Intellectual freedom never means immunity to criticism. It means making your best case and, if you can, answering your critics. Puar’s problem, it seems, is that she can’t.
Image Credit: NoteRemote, cropped.